A Bicycle Journey on Friendly Roads

Chapter 1:  Of Eeels and Possums

"Eels have sharp teeth," Russell was saying as we rattled down the road towards the start of the track. We sat three-abreast in the dusty front seat of his truck; the packs bounced along in back. "Eels chase trout sometimes," Russell continued. "Consider 'em good tucker, I reckon."

"They don't bother fishermen, do they?" I asked, leaning forward and looking past Kate to Russell.

"Most eels won't worry you, you'll be 'right." Then, as kind of an afterthought, he added, "They do get mighty big, though."

How big, I wondered.

We pulled in at Ngamuriwai Flat and unloaded the packs. Russell slid back his terry cloth hat and then started to roll a cigarette.

"You're likely to run into a possum or two," he said without looking up. "Pesky lil' buggers. Kiwi possums have a sort of pig-like snout and make a gruntin' noise. Not like the possums you Yanks are used to. They're nocturnal and damn me hide if they don't get into everythin'."

Scott Bischke

We pulled on our backpacks, bid Russell farewell, and started walking. Kate and I were tramping to the junction of the Wairoa and Waiau Rivers on New Zealand's North Island. It was December 29th. We'd been in New Zealand exactly two weeks.

For the first couple miles we tramped through hills stripped bare by lumbering. Then we crossed into the Urewara National Park and, simultaneously, heavy bush. The track dropped into the deep recess of a valley. Hungry hook grass tore at our legs; pigfern hindered our passage. At the valley floor the track zigzagged across a small stream a hundred times. Often the track simply was the stream. Six hours in from the road, Kate and I reached Parahaki Hut and unshouldered our packs. Thick bush bordered the hut on three sides, the Waiau River on the fourth. A wooden veranda ran along two walls of the hut. Inside we found chairs and a rickety table, an open fireplace, and old candle remnants. Twelve torn mattresses topped an equal number of bunks that stood three high against one wall.

We were alone.

Later, near dusk, I stood in thigh-deep water, fishing and shivering. I cast my fly to pass along an overhanging bush. Suddenly a four-foot apparition slithered out of the black, opened a giant mouth to the fly, then pulled back. As quickly as it had come, the eel disappeared. I looked down at my bare legs, then eased myself out of the water—enough for tonight.

* * * * * * *

A couple days after we arrived at Parahaki Hut, a round bushman and his twelve year old daughter strolled in. The man wore a soiled shirt, soiled running shorts, and half-laced gumboots. He carried a scopeless rifle. His small compatriot was similarly stained and frequently pushed back her stringy blonde hair. She carried a hunting knife belted bandito-style around her middle.

The pair were deer hunting along the river and stopped by in hopes of finding a cup of tea. Earlier we had learned that bush etiquette states that the hosts provide a "hot cuppa." Soon the billy pot came alive with the smell of sweet tea. As the tea began to boil, I asked about eels.

"Oh I'm keen on eels," the man said as he sat down on the wooden veranda. "Beautiful piece of flesh to eat. Bit greasy, but nice white meat."

"You catch eels and eat them?" Kate asked, joining him.

"Dead right," the man returned. I poured the tea. The round man and the small girl wrapped their hands around the cups and felt the warmth. The girl blew the heat off the top of her cup. "Jus' find the stinkiest, rottenest, ol' piece of meat you can," the man continued, "and put it on a treble 'ook. Then find a dark looking log jam and drop it under. Wait 'til they swallow it 'ole or the 'ook will just pull right out." Kate and I exchanged looks.

The man sipped the tea and gave a sigh of satisfaction. "She caught an eel last night," he said, nodding to his daughter.

Scott Bischke

The girl smiled, eyes twinkling, and replied, "You helped, Dad."

He smiled back at her, like they were sharing a secret. "We got it 'anging in a plastic bag back at our 'ut," he said. "We were going to leave today but, with the eel, we'll stay another day. If we're lucky enough to get a deer, we'll probably stay a few more."

The girl followed her Dad's words attentively. When it came time for her to talk, he didn't interrupt. She spoke with childish enthusiasm and often looked to her Dad with pride. "Dad used to hunt here when he was a lad. Back then there were heaps of deer and he could get all he wanted. Yesterday we almost shot one but Dad wasn't sure if it was a stag or a hind."

"How do you pack a deer out of the bush?" I asked.

"No worries, mate," the man responded. "Bone out the front, sack it, and put it in the small pack for 'er. I carry out the 'ind quarter on me back, rest me arms on the legs."

"What about storing the meat if you decide to stay?" Kate asked.

The man looked into his emptying cup and smiled. "Well, you can do a couple things. I might dig a 'ole in the river bank, bag it, and bury it. Or 'ang it in the fire 'til it gets all sooty and crusty. Even if it does get blown, don't matter."

"Blown?" I asked.

"Ya know, if the blow flies lay their eggs on the meat and maggots start eating away. Jus' cut the bad 'unk off."

I smiled. Kate turned green. The round man and the small girl lifted their cups high, thanked us for the tea, and moved on.

* * * * * * *

That evening Kate and I took turns reading aloud by firelight, then dozed off. Sometime in the middle of the night, long after the fire had died, we were awakened by a loud grating noise on the metal roof. "BANG, BANG, BANG" moved across the length of the hut, followed by a hurried, panicked scurrying, an agonizing slide, a brief moment of silence...and finally a deafening "CRASH!"

By this time Kate and I were both upright in our bunks. I crept to the door and peered out in time to see a chubby possum extracting his bruised ego from a pile of metal alongside the hut.

"It's just a possum," I reported with a sigh of relief.

"Great," agonized Kate. "I have to pee."

"Go on," I said, "it won't hurt you."

"There's no way I'm going out there," she replied, and with that returned uncomfortably to bed. Soon, however, Kate stood back at the door, timidly peeking out. As she stepped onto the porch, I heard a bloodcurdling scream. "Scott! He's right there!" WHAM!, the door slammed. Only the far wall of the hut stopped Kate's retreat.

Sure enough the possum sat three feet from the door, staring at us like a lost child. The possum was about the size of a big cat. Fat and fur lumped its belly. The possum's eyes looked like oversized marbles and glowed with the reflection of my flashlight. A long tail, curled at the end, stretched out behind it. We looked at each other for several moments and then the possum made its way slowly up a post and disappeared onto the roof. Kate, meanwhile, huddled behind me muttering articulate things like "Yuk" and "Gross."

As I closed the door, Kate crossed her legs; her face contorted in pain. "I gotta go so bad," she moaned.

"Then go! I'm going to bed."

"No, no, wait, wait. Please! You shine the light while I go. If he jumps on me I'm going to die." Kate walked hesitantly onto the veranda. At the edge she stopped.

"I am not stepping off this, no way! He's so uncoordinated he'll fall off the roof on me and bite my butt!"

"Good night, honey," I said. "I'm going to bed." I started to close the door.

"OK, OK. Just don't leave me!" And so Kate went, but not without yelling, "Shine the light over there, quick over there." As she sprinted back into the hut at the end of it all, Kate pronounced, "I WILL NOT go back out there tonight no matter how bad I have to go!" With that she zipped deeply into her sleeping bag, mummified for the night.

From above came the rattle of the possum moving precariously about, oblivious to the excitement it had caused.

...and more...

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